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The real impact of Anna Hazare’s success: Our freedom

To me corruption is an emotive issue — my entire being burns with fury when I face it. It is an issue of injustice — it has the potential of turning us into political cynics. It eats into the dignity of an individual — makes him feel less of a man. Gautam Chikermane writes.

columns Updated: Apr 12, 2011 11:11 IST
Gautam Chikermane

To me corruption is an emotive issue — my entire being burns with fury when I face it. It is an issue of injustice — it has the potential of turning us into political cynics. It eats into the dignity of an individual — makes him feel less of a man. So, when those opposing Anna Hazare’s peaceful agitation say it is undemocratic, institution-debilitating or simply tyrannical, their voices of reason will get muffled in the din of protest, the collective cry of the wounded, the agony of having accepted political slavery rather than having public servants serve us.

Corruption is equally an issue where elected representatives — turned powerful because of our votes — knead the laws, rules, regulations and their petty clauses. They are backed by administrators, from the dominant IAS right down to the peon who moves a file from one desk to the next. How can this resultant nexus make laws against itself? To say, therefore, that Hazare’s fast until death is policymaking by threat or a rabble of publicity-hungry also-rans, is missing the wood for the trees.

The ‘threat’ is there, of course. But with all options closed, if the political class is unable to see a peaceful political uprising — the first green shoots of a political issue — there is clearly something wrong with our politics. I agree blackmails cannot run a country. Today, it’s Hazare, tomorrow it could be anyone of us. Perhaps, this method will turn the ultimate Gandhian tool of peaceful protest for freedom into a weapon of mass policy assault, as it gathers momentum from Jantar Mantar in Delhi through the Vidhan Sabhas in state capitals and alleys of small towns right down to village panchayats.

Hazare has ignited the issue of corruption, looming over us for almost 64 years of Independence, and has finally turned it into a public policy debate. If the debate is skewed because of its methods, that too is fine. Until corruption as a zero-tolerance phenomenon in modern India gains political strength and legitimacy, it is agitations like these that will keep the corrupt under pressure. Already, I can sense the knives of various burning issues being sharpened.

Like its equivalent in developed countries like Sweden, New Zealand and Denmark, as India moves towards that status with an expected $2 trillion GDP by March 2012, it is about time the office of a Lokpal — a body to inquire into and take action against public officials including bureaucrats, politicians and judges — was legislated. The current laws under the Indian Penal Code (1860) or the Prevention of Corruption Act (1988) need prior sanction of the central or state government before an inquiry can be initiated.

For all the pious noises all political parties have made in favour of the Lokpal bill, it would do well to remember that the bill has been introduced in Parliament 10 times — in 1969, 1971, 1977, 1985, 1989, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005 and 2008 — and not passed. While it is frustrating for citizens to see corruption being institutionalised (from birth certificates and admissions into a government hospital to handing out multi-billion-dollar contracts and policy manoeuvring to grant spectrum licences), economic history shows India is not alone while grappling with corruption. In fact, it is probably part of an evolution. Disgustingly, it is also a catalyst for growth.

The urbanisation of US cities, for instance, is a story of how corruption has helped build some of the finest cities of the world. “American cities grew rapidly and were, as far as tangible evidence suggests, relatively well governed,” wrote Rebecca Menes of George Mason University in a 2003 paper, Corruption in Cities: Graft and Politics in American Cities at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. “Skimming from city contracts and manipulating local real estate markets encouraged politicians to pursue growth enhancing policies.”

To say that economic growth will fix corruption would be misleading; on the contrary, it might just raise the stakes. Corruption attracts entrepreneurs from across the world, greasing their billions towards lucrative contracts or licences. It finds find nooks and crannies within the system and settles down on the lowest bidder. The US was built on corporate corruption, said Warren Buffett when he in India last month; he didn’t defend it.

On the other side, there are an equal number of studies that show how corruption can eat into a country’s GDP growth. Corruption costs Russia the equivalent of 2.9% of its GDP every year, said Konstantin Chuichenko, head of Russia’s presidential financial oversight administration. According to PLO Lumumba, director of Kenya’s Anti-Corruption Commission, almost two-thirds of Africa’s GDP is lost every year in corruption-related practices.

When the Group of 20 — leaders of the world’s most powerful and wealthy economies, including India — signed a November 2010 “Leaders’ Declaration” in Seoul, it raised hopes. “To provide broader, forward-looking leadership in the post-crisis economy, we will also continue our work to prevent and tackle corruption through our Anti-Corruption Action Plan,” it said. The 500-word plan included combating “corruption in specific sectors, by working with industry and civil society to identify vulnerabilities in commercial transactions in a subset of specific sectors.”

The string of scams -- Rs 176,000 crore 2G scam, thousands of crores in the Commonwealth Games scam, hundreds of crores in Adarsh Housing Society scam, lakhs paid as bribes in the housing scam -- we saw last year only hurt our image. Hazare’s agitation and the resultant Lokpal Bill could change the texture of corruption in high places. But it’s going to take a long time for that to trickle down. Day-to-day corruption has congealed and brought petty officials together. They have become a law unto themselves, wreaking havoc on average citizens, depriving us of dignity, clawing at our pride of being Indian, turning self-respect into shame.

Hazare says that his fight has only begun, that he will not rest until the Lokpal bill is passed in the way it should. The fight for the rest of us is going to be longer. But in Hazare’s success, I can sense hope in the mood of the nation. Perhaps the chains of bribery that have enslaved us for six decades will finally break.